Book Review: Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyber Cheifs

On: September 17, 2009
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About Allison Guy
Allison Guy graduated from Yale with a degree in Environmental Studies. She spent one year working for a small online services company in New York City while enjoying the all the digital life the city had to offer. She now studies New Media in the University of Amsterdam, and is attempting to make the transition from the NYC subway system to the NL bicycle system.


In 2004, after researching the allometric growth of antlers between extinct and extant deer, trapped deep within the dungeons of my university’s vertebrate collections, I whizzed over to the Wikipedia entry on the Irish Elk, sure I could add my two cents to the article. When I arrived I saw that there was nothing left to contribute: the topic for a dead deer and its impossibly large headgear had already been exhausted.

That marked the end of my editing career, and a the start of my general bonhomie towards what I understood as a triumph of non-hierarchical collaboration. With this in mind, I found it interesting to be disabused of my notions in Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyber Cheifs: Authority and Autonomy in Online Tribes. O’Neil reveals collaborative online projects to be thickets of infighting and opaque governance systems.

In his new book, O’Neil, a lecturer and researcher at the Australian National University and the Australian Department of Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy, discusses in detail the power structures of several prominent online communities. In each chapter, he characterizes the autonomy of a given collaborative site, its power structure, both administrative and meritocratic, and to describe the main conflicts within these digital realms. Strangely enough, all of the conflicts O’Neil identifies originate with female users. Whether this is chance or a reflection of the pervasive sexism of the internet is an issue that the author only briefly notes.

He convincingly argues that, in most cases, sites that began as a response to entrenched corporate and political hierarchies have evolved in parallel forms of social domination similar to those village or tribal societies. Like tribes, these sites eschew capitalistic interactions in favor of a mutually beneficial gift economy. Communities such as Wikipedia, Daily Kos, and are domains of “mutual surveillance and gossip (page 186),” where credentials and expertise, which can be easily faked in an anonymous forum, and are disregarded in favor of verifiable contribution rates, length of membership, and personal honor.

Most importantly, online tribal bureaucracies are marked by charismatic founders who occupy clearly delineated roles that are nonetheless untransferable. It is, for instance, difficult to conceive of the Daily Kos without Markos Zuniga as the publisher and head editor. O’Neil has no utopian hang-ups over the necessity of leadership. Instead, he points out that what makes the authority in these instances insidious is the same authorities’ unwillingness to acknowledge itself, or, worse, delegating that authority to cliques who have more invested in protocol than in producing quality content. Such influential sites, he argues, are in clear need of legitimate, transparent leadership bound by rules.

While O’Neil concentrates on influential, highly visible sites (with the except of, which has been inactive since 2002), I would have been interested in a foray into the underbelly of collaborative communities. In particular, I was keeping in mind the /b/ board on the image-sharing site 4chan. Think what you may of the /b/ board’s questionable content, it is nonetheless a vastly popular community, garnering upwards of 200,000 responses a day, and responsible for both the vileAn Hero‘ meme and the endlessly amusing animal+caption memes. The /b/ board is notable in the context of O’Neil’s book in that users are completely anonymous, may change their usernames at will, or have none identification at all.

Yet this very lack of an authoritative structure seems to have compounded the tribal aspects of the site: Common knowledge that is opaque to outsiders, disgust towards uninitiated n00bs, deference towards a charismatic founder (who nonetheless appears to have little to no impact on the site’s actual governance), and an ability to collaboratively execute projects without established authority figures, most notably actions against scientology. Indeed, there are no chiefs and no bureaucracy to speak of on 4chan, and yet it has independently developed the characteristics O’Neil attributes to the genesis of power structures on Wikipedia, the Daily Kos, and the like.

Overall, I found O’Neil’s book to be thoroughly researched and exhaustive in its examination of the issues at hand. I would have appreciated a more concrete examination of the broader consequences of power and authority within these communities. To me, at least, it seems that battles amongst insiders do not ultimately have a significant effect on what content is displayed to the casual reader or site participant. Facts areultimately corrected on Wikipedia, and that influential users who choose to leave sites such as Daily Kos merely re-post their opinions in other forums or found their own digital soapboxes. I do not doubt that the power structures of such sites have wider reverberations for what information is made available to decision-makers and mainstream media . Perhaps I will have to defend my own edits on Wikipedia before I can fully appreciate the importance of these changing tribal governance structures.

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